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Sunday, May 6, 2012

Incumbents’ announced departures leave Senate in state of flux

Kevin Landrigan

You can now call it an epidemic.

The decision of first-term Sen. Fenton Groen, R-Rochester, to suddenly decide not to seek another term brings the number of incumbents taking a pass on 2012 to seven – six Republicans, one Democrat.

And that doesn’t count Sen. Andy Sanborn, R-Henniker, who is aborting his seat, moving to Bedford and running in the district being left by another retiring senator, Raymond White, R-Bedford.

Consider the dilemma facing Senate President Peter Bragdon, R-Milford, who started 2011 with 19 eager GOP colleagues and now has to scramble to find candidates to run for unexpected – and in some cases very different – open seats.

Less than a month ago, Groen had told colleagues he was all in even though ideological ally White and other associates were skeptical he would go through with it.

Then the loss of some contracts and small layoffs at his Rochester construction business made the decision easy for Groen to make.

This comes despite the fact Bragdon made sure Groen was set up well for his re-election.

The reconfigured Senate District 6 is a lot friendlier to GOP candidates than its past incarnation.

Groen had left only his hometown to run in, losing the Democratic strongholds of Barrington (home to the woman he beat in 2010, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jackie Cilley), Madbury (home of U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H.) and Somersworth.

He picked up rock-ribbed GOP towns of Alton, Barnstead, Gilmanton and New Durham.

Rep. Steve Vaillancourt, R-Manchester, a House demographic guru, ran the numbers and said the changes went from the Democrats having a 6 percent registration bump in the district to the Republican getting that 6 percent advantage.

Now seems an appropriate time to take a look at the 24 seats and what the 19-5 Republican super-majority could turn into this November.

District 1, John Gallus, R, retiring: Democratic-leaning, especially if former Party Chairman Jeff Woodburn, of Whitefield, gets in, which looks increasingly likely.

GOP Reps. John Tholl, of Whitefield, and Mark Tremblay, of Berlin, are giving it a look; some GOP operatives want to get former Rep. Brien Ward, of Littleton, into the fray.

District 2, Jeanie Forrester, R: Republican-leaning.

District 3, Jeb Bradley, R: Solid Republican.

District 4, no incumbent – hometown moved out of Sen. Jim Forsythe, R, retiring: Solid Democratic, as it includes Dover and Somersworth.

District 5, Matt Houde, D, retiring: Solid Democratic.

District 6, Groen, retiring: Democratic-leaning. If his brother, Rep. Warren Groen, R-Rochester, or Rep. Cliff Newton, R-Rochester, run, this outlook improves. But Democrats hope longtime Rep. Sandy Keans, D-Rochester, will put it in their column.

District 7, Sanborn, moving to run elsewhere: Republican-leaning, although if 2010 Democratic nominee Andrew Hosmer goes as is likely, then it’s a pick ’em.

District 8, Robert Odell, R: Republican-leaning.

District 9, White, retiring: Republican-leaning, although Democrats have a quality candidate in Lee Nyquist, of Bedford.

District 10, Molly Kelly, D: Solid Democratic.

District 11, Bragdon: Solid Republican, although he has to get by a primary with Merrimack’s Dan Dwyer.

District 12, Jim Luther, R: Republican-leaning, although former Sen. Peggy Gilmour, D-Hollis, will give him all he can handle.

District 13, Gary Lambert, R, retiring: Solid Democratic, with former Sen. Bette Lasky going again and Republicans trying to talk auto dealer Jack Tulley into running.

District 14, Sharon Carson, R: Solid Republican.

District 15, Sylvia Larsen, D: Solid Democratic.

District 16, David Boutin, R: Republican-leaning.

District 17, Jack Barnes, R: Solid Republican.

District 18, Tom DeBlois, R, retiring to run for Executive Council: Democratic-leaning, with former Senate chief of staff Donna Soucy the odds-on favorite.

District 19, James Rausch, R: Solid Republican.

District 20, Lou D’Allesandro, D: Democratic-leaning, although Rep. John Hikel, R-Goffstown, will run hard at him.

District 21, Amanda Merrill, D: Solid Democratic. The last Democrat to not say definitely she’ll run again; it’s likely she will, but her replacement could win it, too.

District 22, Chuck Morse, R: Solid Republican.

District 23, Russell Prescott, R: Republican-leaning, with Prescott the last GOP incumbent may bow out, too – but we doubt it.

District 24, Nancy Stiles, R: Republican-leaning, and it has become better for Stiles with Portsmouth and Newington taken out, and Stratham and South Hampton dropped in.

Total outlook: Six solid Republicans, six solid Democrats, eight leaning Republican and four leaning Democrat.

If all went by this betting book, it would turn out 14-10 Republican.

Civil war averted

Senate budget writers backed off what would have been a civil war between acute-care hospitals.

Odell believed this was the right time, in the middle of the two-year budget cycle, to recast the formula for state money given to hospitals under the disproportionate share program.

You’ll recall the most controversial move in the current budget was for GOP legislative leaders to pocket $200 million that would otherwise go to the hospitals under this formula to balance the spending plan.

What they did was dole out $48 million to the rural “critical access’’ hospitals, both because they’re right on the margin financially and needed the cash to stay in business and because federal Medicaid law advised New Hampshire it’s better to keep those hospitals harmless.

Odell’s change would give out all the money based on the percentage of patients that the hospital has on Medicaid or in free care it gives in order to underwrite services to those without insurance.

This would have given, say, 8 percent of the pool to Elliot Hospital in Manchester and closer to 30 percent to the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.

That would mean much less cash for some of these critical-access hospitals.

But Morse, the Senate Finance Committee chairman, convinced Odell to forgo the change in formula now and instead create a study committee to come up with a new design by November.

This would allow the rewrite to proceed before the new governor and new Legislature in 2013 in time for the next two-year budget, which will start July 1 of that year.

“What we have isn’t working, and we’ve created ill will between everybody,’’ Morse said. “The state of New Hampshire should solve its own problems and the feds should stay out of it.’’

Morse was still seething about a letter that several hospitals had sent to the Obama administration’s Medicaid regulators asking for federal intervention of the state-run program.

“There is an all time low in terms of the hospitals and the state of New Hampshire relationship,’’ Morse said.

Morse insisted that the federal lawsuit filed by 10 hospitals challenging the Medicaid rates doesn’t factor into any change of this formula.

“I don’t believe solving it in Washington is the answer,’’ Morse said. “I don’t give a damn about the lawsuit part of it. We only have $660 million; there has to be a better solution.’’

Questioning the past

Yes, Bragdon will have his hands full running for re-election in a district that is very different than the one he now holds.

Merrimack Town Councilor Dwyer will oppose him in a GOP primary, and those are always tougher for any incumbent than one thinks they’ll be.

Bragdon has a long voting record to defend from eight years in the Senate and two in the House.

But The Sunday Telegraph has confirmed that Dwyer will have some explaining to do with GOP audiences, as well.

Dwyer’s resume includes a two-year stint in the House of Representatives. What it fails to mention was that it was as a Democrat.

“I was a Reagan Democrat,” Dwyer said. “I changed after Reagan was in office for a while.”

Candidate Dwyer says he supports Right to Work.

But then Rep. Dwyer voted against it in the House.

“I guess if you say so, then it’s true,” he said. “I’ve long since changed my mind about that. I guess with more than 25 years passing by, you have the right to have a different opinion about things.”

What about abortion rights?

Candidate Dwyer describes himself as “pro life.’’

But Dwyer’s legislative record reveals that in the House, he opposed a bill that is now law that requires a minor girl to notify a parent before getting an abortion.

Dwyer also voted against a state ban on the public funding of abortions.

“If I did, that’s a surprise to me,” he said. “I haven’t changed on that at all. I have always supported parental notification, so if I voted that way, it was a mistake.”

Dwyer has taken to task Bragdon’s penchant for voting to table troublesome bills rather than killing them, calling it “intellectually lazy.’’

But Rep. Dwyer voted on numerous occasions back in the mid-1980s, along with the abortion-rights majority in the House at the time, to table several anti-abortion bills.

A wise political consultant once told me that a good candidate for public office had better understand his or her weaknesses better than they know those of the opposition.

Aiming at targets

The gun owner lobby was beaten badly in the Senate last week, but it’s shooting back.

The New Hampshire Firearms Coalition wasn’t very blunt in describing the Senate action last week in which the GOP-dominated body voted to table or silently kill a bill to partially repeal the need for a permit to carry a concealed weapon.

“You and I were betrayed!’’ declared the blast email sent to supporters Thursday.

“Yesterday, when the Senate voted on Constitutional Carry, seven senators, who pledged during the last election to support Constitutional Carry, voted to lay HB 536, Constitutional Carry, on the table, nearly killing it.”

They took direct aim at Carson, since she had voted for the bill in committee and is an adviser to a rival pro-gun legislation.

“On top of that, she also supported the Judiciary Committee amendment that seriously undermined the bill,’’ the coalition wrote.

The coalition holds out vain hope that political pressure will convince Bragdon to bring the bill off the table.

“Remind them that you will not forget their betrayal,’’ the mailer urges its backers.

That change of heart will have to occur in the next 11 days, since after May 17, it will take a two-thirds vote to take it off the table.

That isn’t going to happen.

“I am not going to sugarcoat things, our chances of successfully getting the Senate to take HB 536 off the table, to allow its passage, are slim,’’ the coalition wrote.

“But even if we fail in moving the Senate to action now, these senators need to know we will not take their betrayal laying down.’’

Kevin Landrigan can reached at 321-7040 or Also, follow Landrigan on Twitter (@KLandrigan).